IS China set to secure another naval base on the continent, weeks after it finally confirmed that it was in talks with the strategically-located city state of Djibouti?
Namibian president Hage Geingob has left the region none the wiser on an issue that has been widely speculated on this year after he this week in an interview said that while his country had been approached, he was not aware of a specific proposal.
Speaking in a feisty interview (UK only) with BBC’s HARDtalk programme that aired on Tuesday having been recorded the previous week when he was in London, Geingob said that such a significant decision, if any, would not be done in secret.
Presenter Sarah Montague had asked the Namibian leader if persistent reports in the country’s largest publication The Namibian that the two countries were in advanced talks to build a naval base in the African country were accurate.
“If Cabinet and parliament decides, but we are not there yet, you are jumping the gun…I do not know anything about such a proposal. It never came to me, maybe to the former president [Hifikepunye Pohamba],” Geingob said.
But the Namibian leader also said that the United States had also made a similar request.
Read: The ‘hippo trench’ across Africa: US military quietly builds giant security belt in middle of continent
Pressed further in the usually no-holds-barred programme if Namibia would accept such a proposal from the Asian country in future, Geingob said: “If they want to do it in a sovereign country like Namibia, how does that concern you?”
“That is for Namibians to decide, but I can assure you that there will be no secret deals. It is my country… and it does not affect you,” accusing the British public broadcaster of seeking to drag China into its ideological battles.
Namibian media have been reporting that top defence officials of both the US and China met Geingob after he took office in March.
In November 2014, The Namibian said that talks were being held at the “highest” levels for the Chinese army to put up a base at Walvis Bay, the country’s only natural deepwater port, “in the next 10 years”.
This would be one of a string of bases that would rope in countries along the Indian Ocean such as Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar and Seychelles to help China patrol key international maritime trade—and military— routes, it reported citing a Chinese media report.
China is involved in infrastructure and resource projects including uranium extraction in the southern African country, in which it also has a satellite tracking station.
The respected paper in January reported a confidential letter from Namibia’s ambassador to China to his foreign minister that referred to an impending visit by a Chinese delegation for talks on “plans for the proposed naval base in Walvis Bay”. A Namibian defence official was also cited saying that “once a decision” was made, the nation would be informed.
Both China and Namibia have sought to douse the claims, with Beijing terming the report as “unfounded” and “exaggerated”. The report that started it all and which had been carried by Chinese media was “an unofficial commentary published in the internet about two years ago,” a Chinese spokesman, Geng Yangshen, said in reaction.
Any Chinese presence would be to deter illegal fishing and to train the Namibian navy, the confidential letter reportedly said.
In November, after months of coyness, China confirmed it was in negotiations with Djibouti to build a logistics hub for military operations in the strategically vital African country.
“This facility will help Chinese vessels to better carry out UN operations, like the escort missions and humanitarian assistance”, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular briefing.
Bloomberg news wire said Hong shied away from describing the centre as a “military base”, but the comments came after US general David Rodriguez, the commander of the US Africa Command, reportedly said that Beijing had signed a 10-year lease for the base, describing it as China’s first “military location” on the continent and that it would “extend their reach.”
The US, France and Japan already have facilities in Djibouti, while Chinese officials insist the country does not have any overseas military bases.
But Chinese contracts to build or manage Indian Ocean ports have raised concerns it is seeking to establish a so-called “string of pearls” in the region—a term coined in 2005 by US consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton to predict China’s expansion of its naval presence in the Indian Ocean though maritime infrastructure in a string of friendly nations.
Essentially this would support China’s ambition to be a major geopolitical player through its ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) strategy, which refers to the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
China’s’One Belt, One Road’ infrastructure plan. Infographic/Courtesy/Mercator Institute for China Studies
Announced in 2013, OBOR is easily the overriding project for China’s president Xin Jinping, who was in Africa at the weekend to build up more goodwill for the new foreign policy through the Forum on China-Africa summit in South Africa, which was attended by close to 50 African heads of state and government.
At that meeting, a subtle but significant shift was observed in the bilateral relationship, as China moved security onto the agenda. In the resulting declaration, the leaders agreed to implement a China-Africa peace and security plan and “support the building of the collective security mechanism in Africa.”
While the strategy has been avidly sold in Eurasia despite being a meta-concept, only now is it starting to become apparent how the Maritime arm of the strategy that branches in Africa’s direction will shape up.
The summit referred to the OBOR in general terms, only saying both sides “would actively explore the linkages” between it and Africa’s economic integration and sustainable development agenda .
Early signs are that the use of sea-lanes and the investment of billions into deepwater ports along the eastern Indian Ocean seaboard will create paths for Chinese goods and firms, growing its export markets as it seeks to diversify its economy, deepen political stability and the establish a multi-polar global order.
The naval hubs are thus seen as playing a crucial role in ensuring the free flow of international trade that is crucial to China’s next phase of growth.